Saturday, December 29, 2012

The Lost And Found Jesus

Preached this morning at St. Barnabas Anglican Church, Medicine Hat, where I am stepping in this morning for the rector, the good Canon Gene Packwood.

A local family has decided to go into Calgary for the weekend. It's a large group - parents, aunts and uncles, kids and friends of kids. It's such a large group that they take several mini vans, and on the way home they stop in Strathmore for gas and Timmies. Pretty soon they discover that one of the kids is missing. Wasn't he in your van? No, we thought he was with you? If you can imagine the fear and anxiety that would set in at this point, then you're well on your way to understanding today's gospel relaxing from Luke.
It's easy to empathize with Mary and Joseph, Parents haven't really changed across the centuries, children still get lost, and the same emotions still arise. When Mary finally finds her son, after three days of what must have been increasingly frantic searching, and says to to her son that he has caused his parents "great anxiety", who could blame her for being at least a little bit cross with her son? Perhaps some of us would say things that, if Luke were telling our story, he would choose to edit to make fit for family consumption?
So we can understand the situation of the story and the feelings of the anguished and then relieved parents. Got it. But then we might ask ourselves, is this really the point of the story, to tell us that parents are parents, across the centuries? If the point of the story was to show us a scene from the childhood of Jesus, why then did Luke only choose this one? Why is it that this is the only story about the childhood of Jesus in any of the gospels? And why does this story take us in such a different direction from the Nativity story, so we go straight from the peace and mystery of Silent Night and candles and Christmas Eve to our next time back in church and this story of fear and anxiety in the crowded streets of Jerusalem?
Jerusalem. Perhaps the key to understanding this story is its setting. Why here? Why does Luke take us so quickly from peaceful and little Bethlehem to great Jerusalem, the home of the kings of Israel and the home of its God, who was thought to reside in the Temple? The first answer is Passover, when Jesus' family make the yearly pilgrimage to Jerusalem. But if we know the whole gospel story, we hear the words Jesus and Jerusalem and Passover and we can't help but think of the Passion story. There are other elements here which also foreshadow the Passion, such as the fact that His parents look for Jesus for "three days" and their son's presence in the Temple, the final place he will visit before the Last Supper, debating with the teachers, the same group that will judge him at the end. I think it's fair to say that Luke tells us this story to show us what Jesus has been born to do.
We began our worship this morning looking backwards to the peace of Christmas Eve as we sang the carol "O Little Town of Bethlehem". Amid the lovely Victorian language of Phillips Brooks we sang these words in verse 4:
"O holy child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray;
Cast out our sin and enter in; be born in us today."
Here, amid one of the sweetest and gentlest of all the Christmas carols, is language that points us, firmly and unavoidably, to Jerusalem and to the cross, the places that Jesus must go for our sake if we are to be set free of our sin. To borrow from another Victorian carol, ("Good Christian Men Rejoice"), "Christ was born for this". Jesus must go to Jerusalem for our sakes, and I think Luke uses this story of the young Jesus to tell us this hard truth, as much as we might wish not to think of it.
As Luke finishes his story, he tells us that Mary "treasured all these things in her heart" (Lk 2:51). As I understand this verse, Luke is saying that Mary now has a clearer understanding of who her unusual son is and what he is meant to do. To say more on that matter would be the work of a novelist rather than of a preacher. I can't help though but to draw a connection between this passage, with Mary treasuring this mystery in her heart, and with what Paul tells us in Colossians, how we are to "Let the word of Christ dwell in us richly" (Col 3:16). Both verses seem to point to the importance of making room for Christ in our lives, thoughts, and deeds. It is an easy thing to overlook Jesus, as Mary and Joseph found on their way home. Ad a harder thing to seek him out if we are busy and frantic, as they were. If you are looking for a spiritual new year's resolution, you might trying harder to keep your eyes on Jesus, to not lose sight of him, and to keep his words and
Presence treasured in your heart.
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Thursday, December 27, 2012

The Truest Answer Is: "I Don't Know Why"

The New York Times has been running a series of meditations on faith and contemporary life through this Christmas season, and yesterday offered this piece by Maureen Dowd, on the problem of explaining God's seeming refusal to intervene in and stop occurrences of evil. In theological terms this is called theodicy, and a wise clergy friend of mine once told me that it was a mug's game, best avoided. Dowd quotes another clergyman, the Catholic priest Father Kevin O'Neil, who answered her question, "Why, God?" with much wisdom. Here's a taste:

"I believe differently now than 30 years ago. First, I do not expect to have all the answers, nor do I believe that people are really looking for them. Second, I don’t look for the hand of God to stop evil. I don’t expect comfort to come from afar. I really do believe that God enters the world through us. And even though I still have the “Why?” questions, they are not so much “Why, God?” questions. We are human and mortal. We will suffer and die. But how we are with one another in that suffering and dying makes all the difference as to whether God’s presence is felt or not and whether we are comforted or not."

On a related note, National Public Radio's Tom Ashbrook did a great show on 21 Dec on Spiritual Responses to the Sandyhook School shootings in Newtown, CT. The panel included theologican Miroslav Volf, of Yale Divinity School, who lived through the Yugoslav War in the 1990s and has long reflected on the Christian response to evil. Highly recommended.

Monday, December 24, 2012

The Christmas Apocalypse

Preached last night, amidst many adults and children, in a much mor abbreviated and chaotic form, at the CFB Suffield Base Chapel, in the Crown Village of Ralston.

So we all survived the Mayan Apocalypse. Congratulations! The fact that I didn't open the base chapel on Dec 21st may suggest to you that I was a bit sceptical about the whole event. Perhaps if there had been Hollywood-type things going on, liked rifts opening in the prairie or strange lights in the sky, I would have changed my mind, and doubtless you would have been here with me. But did anyone feel nervous that day? Not surprising if you did, as there is a lot of fear out there.

Tonight we are here for what might be called the Christmas Apocalypse, using the proper meaning of the Greek word, apocalypsis, meaning a showing or revealing (hence the last book of the Bible, the Revelation or Apocalypse of St. John). For what is Christmas but God revealing himself to us in the form of the baby in the manger? Charles Wesley understood this fact centuries ago when he composed one of the great carols, Hark the Herald Angels Sing: "veiled in flesh the Godhead see, / hail the incarnate deity". The Christmas story, at its heart, is about God in God's son, wanting to be seen and known by the world he loved into creation.

We need to recover this meaning of the apocalypse as something other than an ending to be feared. That sense of fear is redolent in our culture today. One hears of the zombie apocalypse, of the nuclear apocalypse, of the environmental apocalypse. We imagine a world of diminishing resources and unravelling social bonds, where neighbours turn on neighbour and devour one another. If one wonders where that fear comes from, ask the people of Newtown, Connecticut, or in any other place in the world where death or disaster erupt without warning.

For the shepherds watching over their flocks by night, gazing slack-jawed at the riven sky, it must have seemed like the apocalypse in our sense of the word as the world ending. But the message of the angel, indeed the enduring message of Christmas, is "be not afraid". The presence of the "incarnate deity" in the manger signals God's refusal to abandon us, even if that means His accepting and sharing the risks (betrayal, humiliation, death) of our human nature. God chooses to share our lot, that he might, as Wesley put it, "raise the sons of earth" and ultimately save us from our capacity to hurt and kill one another.

The Christmas apocalypse renews and reveals God's intention for creation, that we be in relationship with God and with one another. It does not diminish the reality of evil (think of Herod and the Massacre of the Innocents, those dark shadows at the edge of the Nativity story), but it promises that evil will be undone by the work begun in this birth, and it tells us, as it tells the shepherds, "be not afraid".

A very merry Christmas to you all. Enjoy your time with friends and family, especially those from the UK who may be visiting you here. Tonight we've worshipped by candlelight (miraculously without any disasters) and sung the old carols. It's been lovely. But we've also had a reminder that the apocalypse started tonight, in the sense of God revealing himself to us in the form of his son, a revelation that signals the beginning of the end of the old order of sin and death. Remember these things in the new year, when the nameless, ominous fears out there in the culture rear up again. Be not afraid, for unto us, this day, in the city of David, is born a Saviour, Christ The Lord.
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Location:CFB Suffield, Ralston, AB

Best Christmas Card Postage Stamp Of The Season

I was delighted to get a Christmas card this week with a stamp featuring a vintage VW camper van w Canada flag and canoe, part of Canada Post's Canadian Pride series. Other than that it's a VW, it's a pretty iconic Canadian image.

Here's our own iconic image, the lovely Kay (aka Mrs Padre) alongside our '85 Westy, Appa The Volksbison, and our canoe, Free, at Spruce Coulee Lake, Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park, last summer. All that's missing is a Canadian flag. It's minus gazillion outside tonight, but as I revisit this picture I'm comfortably warm and summer sun lazy again. And was that a loon I just heard?

Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Archaeology Of Compassion

Those ethicists who claim that the capacity for altruism is hardwired in human nature may take heart from this story. Yesterday's New York Times carried a piece about an archaeological dig in Vietnam which revealed an ancient skeleton showing signs of lifelong paralysis. The fact that the individual lived well beyond adolescence strongly suggests that his family/tribe were willing to care for a non-productive member. One of the archaeologists involved in the study is quoted as saying that "the provision and receipt of health care may therefore reflect some of the most fundamental aspects of a culture."

Coincidentally, last night I watched the film Cloud Atlas, which, in so far as I could make it out, is about the ability of acts of kindness and altruism to echo across generations ("by each crime and every kindness we birth our future", as one character says). Or something like that. It was one of those long, artsy films where I wasn't sure if it was being profound or simply playing an elaborate game (look, there's Tom Hanks again, in yet more makeup, doing yet another dodgy accent! Look, there's Halle Berry). However, the author of the novel Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell, seems like an interesting chap, and is going on my reading list.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

A Talk To Sea Cadets

Back in May I was approached by the commander of the local corps of Royal Canadian Sea Cadets to help them organize a service for Battle of the Atlantic Sunday. I get the impression that the Sea Cadets are a bit thin on the prairie, and struggle to stay viable, thanks to their leaders and parents, which is a pity, as it is a fine organization that gives young people real challenges and leadership skills. I enjoyed the opportunity to work with these young people and their leaders, and so I was very pleased to get an invitation to speak at their mess dinner last night. Below is the text of my talk, given to an audience ranging from ages 12 to 65. For the young cadets, the evening was an introduction to the mysterious ritual of the mess dinner, and I have to say, I had a better time than I have had at more than a few mess dinners.

Thank you for the invitation to speak to your mess dinner tonight. As you can see, I am wearing a red coat, which means that either I'm a soldier or a Mountie, and either way therefore no expert on being a sailor. In fact, everything I know about ships and the sea comes from books and movies. Well, almost everything. Tonight I want to tell you about two Canadian warships that I have visited in the last two years, and what I learned from those ships about navies and about sailors.

Aboard HMCS Sackville, Halifax, NS, August 2010

In 2010 I was in Halifax, Nova Scotia and visited HMCS Sackville, the Canadian Naval Memorial. Ifmyou are ever in Halifax it is worth the time to visit, as you will get no better feel for what life was like at sea for your grandparents' generation. Sackville was a small warship called a corvette, built to hunt and destroy enemy submarines and to escort the convoys that took troops and supplies to Europe in Workd War Two.

By today's standards, Sackville is tiny and primitive. There isn't a single computer on board. The guns were controlled by eye and calculating range and angle by brainpower and experience. The weapons used to attack submarines worked the same way, you used sound to find the submarine under water, you used math to calculate where and how fast the sub was going, and then you tried to get there to drop your depth charges, or undersea bombs, on top of him.

When you weren't hunting submarines you tried as best you could to stay warm and dry, but in a North Atlantic storm, good luck with that. Corvettes were small and rolled badly in high seas, leaving their crews soaked, bruised, and exhausted. You always thought about the enemy torpedo that might be coming through the water to hit your ship, and whether you would die in the explosion or be drowned in the cold oily water. Men sometimes cracked under the stress.

Corvette crews were volunteers and most had never been to sea before the war. They had to learn on the job. They relied on the experience of a few professional sailors, they relied on their training, and they relied on each other. When you went down to bunk far below the waterline, with little chance of escaping if you got hit, you relied on the men on watch to stay alert and to give a good warning if they saw danger.

On the stern of the Vancouver, Esquimalt Dockyard, November 2012

Last month I was in the Navy dockyard at Esquimalt, on Vancouver Island, and I had the chance to take a tour of HMCS Vancouver. The Vancouver is a warship called a frigate. It does the same basic job that the Sackville did sixty five years ago, patrolling the ocean, protecting friendly ships and hunting enemy ships and submarines. That's where the resemblance ends.

The Vancouver looked like it was five times the size of the old Sackville. It's crew is twice as large as Sackville, around 200. It uses modern missiles and carries a helicopter. It is stuffed with computers, which control the weapons, the engines, the navigation, everything. The crew still have to understand math and geometry and navigation, but the computers help them do these things much faster than they did on ships like the Sackville. In terms of firepower, a ship like Vancouver today is probably ten times as deadly as many ships from World War Two were. The other thing that was very different from World War Two was the presence of women in the Vancouver's crew. In fact, Canada now has at least one warship captain who is a woman.

So that covers some of the differences. What hasn't changed? The Vancouver still goes out into storms. Sometimes it rolls so badly in high seas that many of the crew are badly seasick and need to take pills. The living spaces are still cramped. There's little room for privacy. There's still stress. I spoke to a young woman, a weapons controller, who described what it's like to be in the combat control centre. It's a big room, full of people and computers. It's kept dark, so the only light comes from the computer screens. There are no windows, so your only sense of what's going on comes from your screen and from your headphones. As this young sailor told us, she has to focus and do her job and not think about the torpedo that might come and break their ship in half like a twig. Instead she has to trust those around her to do their jobs, just as they are trusting her. Anyone who sailed on the Sackville would get that.

Vancouver had just gotten back from six months off the coast of Somalia, hunting weapons smugglers and pirates, and she was going into drydock for long and expensive repairs. Te next day I read a newspaper story about the problems our Navy has. The story said that we don't have enough ships, that the ones we do have, like Vancouver, are getting old, and there's not enough money. I'm sure the story was right, but you know, it's always been that way in Canada's history, In World War Two we didn't have enough ships at the beginning. We built small ships like the corvettes because our shipyards were too small to make bigger ships. We didn't have enough sailors, so we trained volunteers, including a lot of prairie kids who had never been to see before, and they got the job done. The same was true of the army and the airforce. The same thing was true of the Canadian Army when we first went to Afghanistan. All our gear and clothing was green because we never planned on going to a desert country, and there's not a lot of green in Afghanistan. Our vehicles weren't well defended, we didn't have the right helicopters to move our troops around, etc etc. What kept us going until we got the good stuff was our people.

If you were in church back in May at the Battle of Atlantic service you heard me say that I was surprised to learn that there were sea cadets here in Medicine Hat, on the prairie. I kind of thought you needed to be close to oceans and ships to be a sea cadet or a sailor. But now understand better what it takes. Visiting the Sackville and the Vancouver told me that a ships' crew don't just need seatime and technical training, though those things are good. They also need leadership, and teamwork, and the ability to trust their leaders and peers. They need courage and patience to deal with stress. If you can learn those things on Sea Cadets, then you'll be off to a good start and well on your way to going to sea, or wherever else you go in life.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Christmas at Suffield 2

My work at Suffield also takes place outside the chapel. A garrison padre's lot is generally a quite one. People are busy in their workshops and offices, and other than sports and social events, it's harder to visit the troops than it is in the field, where most people stand around between sort bursts of strenuous activity. Fortunately, there's Christmas, or "silly season" as the troops call it.

The army has its own Christmas traditions, including "subbies' carolling", a night in which the junior officers ("subbie" from the English word "subaltern" meaning a young lieutenant) visit the senior officers' homes in ascending order, ending with the colonel. At each stop the young gentlemen stand on the porch, bawl out a carol, and then are invited in for festive cheer. Rather a lot of drinking happens, and by the time the night ends at the colonel's house, chaps are often quite fare gone, and often rack their brains the next morning, wondering if they did anything at the boss' house that will compromise their careers. We did our carolling the first week of December, and I embraced the thankless ministry of the designated driver. One of our captains ended his night in a spectacular degree of inebriation requiring casualty evacuation, so I never did make it to the colonel's house, but the stories I heard. There are stories about me from a previous year, involving a teddy beer, but don't believe them.

Another Christmas tradition in the army is the soldier's Christmas dinner, in which the officers and NCOs serve a Christmas dinner to the junior ranks (corporals and privates). Several customs are often observed during this event. Promotions are announced, and the oldest and youngest junior ranks are invited to sit at the head table. The Colonel and the youngest private exchange tunics, and the young soldier gets to be the CO for an hour or two, in a military version of the Lord of Misrule.

I don't know the age of this tradition, which most likely has its origins in the Vctorian era, when Christmas began to be widely sentimentalized. In the Canadian army it is a tradition of some age, and its most famous observance was during the Battle of Ortona, Italy, in 1943.

Members of the Seaforth Highlanders sit down for their Christmas dinner. Photo: Terry F. Rowe / Canada. Department of National Defence / Library and Archives Canada / PA-152839

Our own Christmas dinner saw Canadian and British soldiers sharing the same tables, and being generally well behaved, knowng that their RSM's eagle eye would catch anyone who started a foodfight. The food was excellent, and the soldiers enjoyed several cans of beer along with turkey and all the trimmings, as well as Christmas crackers.

Something I like to do at Suffield when I am called upon to say grace is to write some sort of rhyming grace that captures the spirit of the occasion, on the theory that people are more likely to listen to a grace if it is humorous and interesting. Here is my attempt for this year's soldier's Christmas dinner. The reference to hockey is to the Suffield ice hockey tournament (privates vs corporals vs sergeants/warrants vs officers that occurs the morning of the Christmas dinner.

Put down your tools, ignore the phone, In a week or so we're going home. Today's a day for food and cheer, For the holidays are drawing near.

May this morning's hockey rivalry, Give way to festive revelry. May we who traded shots on goal Now say "Happy Christmas" and "Noel".

God bless all who serve, as they are able, And bless each Canuck and squaddie at the table. Lord, be with us as we take our ease, And guard our comrades overseas.

Once the soldiers are dismissed to their afternoon off work, the high priced help gets busy with mop and dishrag, and once the mess is cleaned, the tradition of the Mess At Home begins. This year it was the Officers' turn to be invited to the Warrants' and Sergeants' mess for a reception.

Usually for these visits there is a price of admission, some act or performance that shows had badly the visitors want in. My task, along with a young REME lieutenant named Andy, was to come up with a Christmas song. After a few dead ends I remembered the carol from the Christmas truce scene in the 1968 Richard Attenborough film, Oh What A Lovely War.

Our singing wasn't nearly as good as harmonies in the film. However, this is what Andy and I came up with, helped by a few other submissions.

<p>It was Christmas time at BATUS*, the happiest day of the year, Men's hearts were full of gladness and their bellies full of beer, When up spoke RSM McCormack, his face as bold as brass, Saying "We don't want your Christmas pudding, you can stick it up your ... TIDINGS OF COMFORT AND JOY, COMFORT AND JOY, OH TIDINGS OF COMFORT AND JOY

Now there were several sergeants, an elk** they swore to get They booked the day off sick and got on the internet. So sorry RSM Reid, that you didn't get to hunt, Pity that your elk as gone, to some civvie ... TIDINGS OF .....

Nw there were several Warrant Officers, who guessed they might promote Totty, Emerson and Robbo are but three to note Early Xmas pressie time, for them as you could tell, But we are also winners, cos they need to ring the ...***\ TIDINGS OF ......

MNow the Sergeants and the Warrants they are thick as thieves, Lots of dirty tricks they have hidden up their sleeves. When they're playing hockey they love an illegal hit Peace on earth to all ... they couldn't give a .... TIDINGS OF ...........

Don Reid is off to study French, the Base would go to hell, Were not for the efforts of that gallant gunner, Bell. Now some may wonder how he got to carry that pace stick,**** The answer's very simple, they chose the biggest ... TIDINGS OF .......

And now our song comes to an end, we hope it brought you cheer, Now open up the bloody doors, and give us food and beer. Perhaps you didn't like our rhymes, perhaps you thought they suck, It makes no difference to us, cos we don't give a ... TIDINGS OF ..........

*BATUS = British Army Training Unit Suffield **elk = tragedy this fall when no one at the base won an online competition to get a hunting license for one of the elk in the Suffield training area ***ring the bell = a costly mess tradition, when one is promoted, where you have to ring a bell at the bar signifying that you will buy everyone a drink ****pace stick = the ceremonial stick, used to measure pace length for drill, identifying the senior noncommissioned officer in a base or formation

Our singing did get us admission, even though it was dismissed by our British senior host as "a crap song that someone wrote", but to actually enter the building we had to crawl through an obstacle course involving tables, camo nets, shots of alcohol and custard powder (a long story). Once inside, my memory gets rather hazy, but I did meet up with my friend Andy the REME officer, and I was saddened to see that someone had taken a set of clippers to one side of his spectacular wax moustache, a holdover from Movember that we had all become quite proud of.

"My subject is war, and the pity of war."

And that, gentle reader, pretty much exhausts the subject of what I did at Christmas at Suffield this year. After tomorrow's service I'll shut down the chapel, as the Base and the married quarters will be pretty much deserted, and I'll devoutly pray that my pager remains silent as everyone enjoys a safe and happy holidays.

Christmas At Suffield 1

Things are winding down at CFB Suffield, the base where I am currently posted. One of my duties as Padre is providing worship services at the small base chapel. If you follow my sermons on this blog, most are preached in this setting. Well, sort of. The chaotic nature of the chapel, where parents and kids are mixed together because we are too small for a Sunday school, means that the sermons here are the formal versions. What I preach on Sunday mornings is usually much simpler and aimed at all ages. But I digress.

Our chapel was decorated on the first Sunday of Advent. A spanking new Advent banner stands behind our Advent wreath. On the left, you can see one of our two new flat screen monitors getting its first use. The chapel was fortunate enough to get a large equipment grant ($30K+) under the previous base command, with the aim of making our services more contemporary and accessible to the community. Most small churches could only dream of such an outlay. For those of you who are curious, the program we are going to run on these monitors is called Easy Worship. I also plan to use content from a Christian multimedia developer called The Work Of The People - it's thoughtful and theologically rich material, as well as being well produced.

After our Advent 1 service, some of our families put the finishing touches on the creche after a delicious pot luck lunch. Church suppers seem to mirror the feeding miracles in the Gospels, there is always more than enough food..

The following Sunday, Advent 2, the chapel was home to the first Nativity play I've seen in my three Christmases here. The seed for this idea was sown, I believe, by one of the British Army chaplains coming through on training this summer. Padre Nigel had a good noise for finding a cup of tea, and often visited the British wives club that meets in the chapel hall. Pretty soon the idea took root and as he left, Nigel apologized with a cheeky grin for leaving the job to me.

Actually it wasn't much work. I helped the ringleaders write and revise a script, and gave them the few fruits of my wisdom from my time in the civvie church, namely, keep it simple. About ten hours of preparation came together in a chaotic fifteen minutes of performance.

The shepherds visit the manger. The costumes were all done at home, and some were quite well done. Note the angels sitting off to one side at the prieu dieu.

Shepherds are followed by the wise men. It's a pity that the little girl in the lady bug costume isn't in this shot. She was quite lovely, and spent much of the play sitting beside the boy in the camel costume. Isn't that in Isaiah somewhere, about how the ladybug and the camel shall lie down together?

My only regret of the night is that for almost all of the children in this play, only a very few had ever been in the chapel before the rehearsals. A friend of mine noted that only 6% of the British population are churchgoing today, and I would say the percentage is lower in this expat British community. However, I found it interesting how many of the wives wanted to do "a proper Nativity play", so maybe the seed that Padre Nigel planted will take root.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

For All Flesh: A Sermon for The Second Sunday Of Advent

Second Sunday of Advent. Lections for Year C: Malachi 3:16, Luke 1:68-79, Phippians 1:3-11, Luke 3:1-6 To be preached at Christ the King Chapel, Crown Village of Ralston, CFB Suffield, 9 December 2012

"...the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. 3 He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins" (Luke 3:2-3)

"All flesh shall see the salvation of God", says John the Baptizer. Advent reminds us that the Lord is coming for us, for each of us, for "all flesh", in our time of need. Advent reminds us of our need for salvation, of our need to be forgiven of our sins. Advent asks us if we are ready to accept the change that we need, the change that is "salvation".

Let's pause for a moment and think about what "salvation" means in our time and place. If I asked my friends and coworkers if they are saved, I would get blank or hostile responses. There are too many filters in place, too many associations with Ned Flanders and pious TV preachers, for the idea of "salvation" to get a sympathetic or understanding reaction from them. And yet, I am sure, most of my friends and coworkers have some idea of an opposite meaning to "salvation".

Do you ever feel lost in the world? Ever feel alienated from and left out by those in charge, by those with money? Do you ever feel powerless, or drifting, or small? Do you ever feel that you don't really count? If we defined the opposite of "salvation" in these terms, I think we would start getting some traction in our dialogues with those who are indifferent or hostile to the Christian message.

Now what if we continued that dialogue by touching on today's gospel? What if we looked at how Luke describes the coming of John, the Messenger of God, by situating it in the reigns of those religious and political figures in power? The word of God bypasses the players and the halls of power of its day. The word doesn't stop with Lysanias or Caiaphas, but it goes all the way to "John son of Zechariah in the wilderness"(Lk 3:2). It's as if the word of God were to come today, ignoring the CEO and the General and the celebrity and going instead to the wild eyed street person on the corner. John is chosen, and John's job is to tell anyone who will listen that God is coming for all, and not just a few.

For all, and not just a few. As I write these lines, I'm thinking about Jacintha Saldanha, the nurse whose name has become a terrible footnote in the story of Britain's latest royal pregnancy. We can only imagine the terrible forces that led her to took her own life after finding pinned in the spotlight after a prank call by radio presenters went viral. The story of Britain's new royal heir was never meant to be about little people like her. It was supposed to be a story about the few at the top, but Saldhana fell into the machinery of our insatiable worship of power and celebrity. Our indifference to the dignity and individuality of ordinary people created this machinery, and that machinery caught her and chewed her up, leaving us to use inadequate words like "tragedy" and "remorse". It would have been nice if she had been spared, but if we really believed that, we wouldn't allow the machinery to keep running.

Surely a word like "salvation" is more appropriate to the situation. We can wring our hands over the perversity of our human orientation to the few, and the harm it causes, while never understanding or acknowledging the evil and inequity of the arrangement of our world, or we can recognize that God's vision is so much more broader and generous than ours. In God's economy all our worthy of salvation. The royal and the CEO and the celebrity are as worthy of God's word as the wild-eyed prophet in the desert, as deserving of mercy as the widow and the leper that the one preached of by John will come to aid and to love.

One of the glad tidings that we hear at this time of Advent is that all are equally created, all are loved, all are invited to love and turn to a gracious God. In so much as we have not heard this message, in so much as we have complied with merely human valuations of the worth of others and all the harm thus done, we are called to repent. In so much as we are offered a new way of living in the economy of God, a way of life called "salvation", we should rejoice. For unto us, unto all of us, a child is given. Amen.

What's With The Generals?

It's been a while now since the fall of US General David Petraeus from his post-military job as head of the CIA and all the weird stuff about half naked FBI agents, duelling socialites, and fluffy emails that followed. I first read about Petraeus in journalist Tom Ricks' book on the US-Iraq war, Fiasco, where he emerged as one of the few smart and capable US generals to have emerged from that sad business.

Since the Petraeus business there have been a lot of clever but predictable jokes on late night TV about the "military adultery complex". A more thoughtful comment came from Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker magazine, who wondered why we are surprised that generals should give in to a basic human instinct. "Desire", Gopnik writes, "is not subject to the language of judicious choice, or it would not be desire, with a language all its own. The point of lust, not to put too fine a point on it, is that it lures us to do dumb stuff, and the fact that the dumb stuff gets done is continuing proof of its power."

I agree with Gopnik that senior military men can be led by lust to do dumb stuff just as well as ordinary mortals, even though militaries tend to frown on sexual misconduct. Anyone in The Canadian Army familiar with the downfall of General Menard will know this to be true. However, after reading "General Failure", hisarticle in the current issue of The Atlantic Magazine, I find myself agreeing with journalist Tom Ricks that what a general does with his genitals is the least of the problem.

Going back to the US Army's experience in Western Europe from 1944-45, Ricks notes that the sacking of senior commanders (6 Army divisional and 5 corps commanders) was quite common. This is not surprising, he argues, since a general must master a highly demanding skills set, and be able to lead in a complex situation of maximum stress and physical demands. Not everyone met that standard, and the demands of facing a professional and competent German army required pitiless culling of inferior leaders. Compare that era to America's last ten years of war, where an internal culture of military careerism, abetted by an outside lack of interest and understanding of the military by civilian journalists and politicians, protects lacklustre generals. As Ricks writes, "Relief of generals has become so rare that, as Lieutenant Colonel Paul Yingling noted during the Iraq War, a private who loses his rifle is now punished more than a general who loses his part of a war."

Ricks' Atlantic article is a condensed version of the argument in his new book, The Generals: American Military Command From World War Two To Today, reviewed herein the New York Times. This book is definitely one I am hoping to read over the Christmas holidays.

If you want more of Ricks on this subject, you can watch his Dec 4 interview on the PBS News Hour here.

Mad Padre

Mad Padre
Opinions expressed within are in no way the responsibility of anyone's employers or facilitating agencies and should by rights be taken as nothing more than one person's notional musings, attempted witticisms, and prayerful posturings.


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